Corey Payne, Johns Hopkins University:
The rise of Bernie Sanders has fueled a heated discussion in political circles about socialism in the United States. It seems like everyone, from the amateur observer to the professional journalist, has taken Bernie’s self-proclamation of his socialistic-ness at face value. Worse still, we have allowed our political dialogue to use socialism interchangeably with liberalism. From articles referring to the “far left liberals” to analyses stating that “American liberalism is more like socialism” to Bernie himself proclaiming that the New Deal and nearly every government-funded program is socialistic—we have created a fair amount of confusion.
There is much debate about whether this blurring of lines is actually a good thing for the socialist movement in the United States. Many commentators says that it has brought socialism ‘into the mainstream.’ Yet, the manner in which it has been done—by equating left-liberalism with socialism—is actually detrimental to the socialist movement. Liberalism is often just as much at odds with socialism as conservativism is. And we, as socialists, have an even harder struggle to wage when a large portion of the population believes that the ideas put forth by politicians like Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, or even Bernie Sanders are socialistic.
In the short-run, socialists can share many common goals with left-liberals. Since Karl Marx and before, socialists have always played a role in progressive politics. This is because, like some liberals, socialists believe in alleviating the material suffering of all people. The primary difference between the socialists that participate in electoral politics and left-liberals exists in the longer run. While on one hand, liberals believe that the reforms that are achievable within the bourgeois state system are sufficient for the alleviation of material suffering, socialists believe that only though the replacement of exploitative and oppressive structures and institutions can material hardship be truly alleviated. This means that there is some unity on issues such as the minimum wage, financial regulation, and income inequality in the short run. However, socialists diverge from liberals in the long-run regarding issues such as the role of the state, the abolition of wage labor, the democratization of private enterprises, and the redistribution of wealth. In short, liberals and socialists disagree on the replacement of capitalism and its constituent institutions.
Sanders touts FDR’s New Deal, the establishment of social security, and the general provision of social services as accomplishments of American socialism. And while liberals and socialists will both agree that these accomplishments were progressive and important, the establishment of a welfare state is not an end goal for socialists as it is for liberals. Socialists understand that the current role of the state is to reinforce the dominant economic system—capitalism—by generally supporting capital over other groups. This means that capitalism, as a system of social and economic organization, cannot be combatted through the state. For socialists, the struggle against capitalism is paramount. Socialists understand the uses that the state can have, but we also have no illusions of its limitations.
But it is not just long-term goals or theoretical approaches that divide socialists from liberals. Take, for example, foreign policy. While socialists are inherently anti-imperialists, liberal U.S. leaders and the Democratic Party apparatus have long supported war, intervention, and anti-democratic action around the world dating back more than a century. The same people who tout their ‘peace and love liberalism’ at home are the same people who use U.S. military intervention liberally abroad. For socialists, no such boundary can exist. The liberal establishment’s longtime support for the Israeli apartheid state, the ongoing drone war, and the countless (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Honduras…) recent military interventions is as abhorrent to socialists as conservatives screaming “America first!”
This is to say nothing of the disastrous trade agreements that serve as a reminder to socialists that even the most liberal leaders of the U.S. government are still beholden to capital’s interests first and foremost. Many liberals are on board now with understanding the harm that NAFTA has caused labor globally, but even the most liberal president in modern history is trying to push through a “legacy building” gift to capital in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—at the expense of the working class. There is no doubt in the minds of most observers that the current liberal candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, would support the agreement if it had not been for the resonance of Bernie Sanders’ anti-trade message drawing her to the left. Some, like her close friend and confidant Terry McAuliffe, have hinted that she’ll reverse her decision once she no longer needs the progressive wing of American politics to support her.
Still, there is some evidence to believe that Bernie Sanders is, in fact, a socialist. He has notably had a long-time admiration of Eugene Debs, had supported the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and expressed sympathy for the Soviet Union. However, he toned down his anti-capitalist message in order to try to wage a successful primary campaign. Regardless, he has injected a healthy dose of class discourse into American politics. It’s for this reason that some socialists flocked to him. However, others were wary of his association with the Democratic Party—an institution that not only is the antithesis of many socialist values, but that has historically been “anti-red.”
The Democratic Party is a capitalist party. Its goals as an institution are to bring together the left-leaning lower and middle strata of American society in a way that doesn’t create a class consciousness or question the organization of the politics and economy. In the past, particularly following Reagan’s election, the only noticeable difference in policy between the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans regarded “social issues,” such as marriage equality, abortion, and immigration. Bill Clinton’s election solidified that sameness, ushering in a new era of Democratic politics that no longer attempted to veil its indebtedness to capital. Even now, the best ‘hope’ for liberal America is capital’s candidate for president: Hillary Clinton. With her opponent’s historic un-favorability among elites, she has attracted support from capitalists across the two-party divide.
Liberalism is directly at odds with the goals, values, and methods of socialism. By blurring the very clear line between the two we risk losing the message of socialism as a struggle against liberalism. By linking the two, our political discourse removes the agency of socialist organization and the inherent resistance of socialist ideology. Liberals have long disavowed their equivalence with socialism. And in this, both liberals and socialists can agree.